El Paso County is operating the most expensive jail system in the state and may well have the best compensated jail guards in Texas, Commissioner Vince Perez contends.

And, because of those situations, Perez says the county is losing big money on the hundreds of federal prisoners it houses every day.

He thinks those are among the good reasons for bringing on a county budget officer, which Commissioners Court agreed to by a 3-2 vote last week, making El Paso the last of the state’s 10 urban counties to create that position.

“The jail is just the tip of the iceberg,” Perez said. “The commissioners should be more engaged in budgeting all year round and that’s what a budget officer will give us.”

The county auditor’s office serves a different purpose and does it well, Perez said, but it’s not enough to keep the Commissioners Court on the ball financially.

Commissioners Court also approved the creation of a county manager position last week, a move County Judge Veronica Escobar has wanted to make since taking office in 2011.

First, the jail

Sheriff Richard Wiles disagrees with Perez’s calculations regarding the federal prisoners that the county contracts to hold for trial or sentencing.

The question of whether the county is losing money on federal prisoners is the subject of a just completed study by the county’s Human Resources Department that was to have gone to commissioners last week. Instead it will be presented at the Aug. 4 meeting.

According to figures Perez has compiled, the $71.2-million budget for the operation of the 1,000-bed Downtown detention center and the 1,464-bed complex on East Montana is 22.7 percent of the county’s $313 million budget.

That percentage is higher than any other major county in Texas, his figures indicate.

The jail system’s costs work out to $86.74 a year for every person living in El Paso County. That too is the highest in Texas, Perez said.

The next highest cost is $68.53 per capita in Travis County, home of the state capitol in Austin. The lowest is in San Antonio where the Bexar County detention system’s per capita cost is just $31.

This year’s budget for Bexar County’s 4,596-bed system is $54.6 million – or $16.6 million less than El Paso’s.

“How is it that a county twice our size with twice our inmate population spends so much less than we do?” Perez asked. “Our spending $71 million a year is equivalent to building a Chihuahuas ballpark every year.

“The cost for incarceration in this county is astronomical.”

He contends it has a lot to do with the salaries and benefits of the county’s 650 detention officers.

“Now that contract is under negotiation, but based on the analysis that has been provided thus far, it is the most lucrative contract in the state,” Perez said.

The salary schedule shows detention officers start at $37,323 a year and will, without a promotion, top out at $60,789 in 11 years.

“We can look at other places, but nobody’s making 60 grand after 11 years as a detention guard, not even close,” Perez said. “But that $60,000 is nowhere near the real cost because it doesn’t include benefits or retirement and health care.”

With one promotion, a detention officer becomes a floor control officer or corporal and would be making $70,373 after 11 years. That’s under the current contract between the county and the El Paso County Sheriff Officers Association, a union.

Under that contract, the starting salary for a deputy sheriff, who must serve as a detention officer for at least a year before becoming a deputy, is $43,590. Pay for that rank tops out after 11 years at $70,996.

Wiles said Commissioners Court, not him, is responsible for contract negotiations on financial issues with the union, and he doesn’t know whether detention guards are the best compensated in Texas.

But he has a strong opinion about good salaries for his officers.

“I think it is important that you offer a good salary and benefits to attract quality people and retain them because it saves the county money in the long run,” Wiles said.

Federal inmates

Perez said the detention guards’ compensation is a big reason, if not the main reason, why the county is losing money on its contract to house federal prisoners.

Years ago, those federal contracts were lucrative for the county and were a major factor when former Sheriff Leo Samaniego pushed for construction of the expandable jail annex on East Montana.

The numbers are simple, Perez said.

The county is paid $70 a day for federal prisoners, but the cost of keeping them in the Downtown jail is $100 a day and $85 a day at the Montana detention complex where the county is building new facilities for 430 more inmates.

Wiles said the U.S. Marshal’s Service has paid the county $70 per prisoner per day since he took office in January 2009, and he expects a higher fee will be negotiated this year because that contract is up for renewal.

He agrees that it looks like a loss when Perez compares the $70 payment per prisoner with the undisputed $100 a night cost at the Downtown jail where about 550 are held.

“But that is too simplistic,” Wiles said. “What the feds pay includes fixed costs, part of my salary, administration and purchasing.

“The HR report found that if we eliminated every federal prisoner, we would have to make up $10 million to $11 million a year. I say it is not true that federal payments are not covering costs.”

Eliminating federal prisoners, most of whom are held Downtown a few blocks from the federal courthouse, would force the government to house them miles away in private jails in New Mexico’s Otero County or in Hudspeth County.

That, Wiles said, would create huge headaches and expense for the entire criminal justice system.

“Why would you want to do that, reduce our workforce and send those jobs outside out city? Wiles said. “It’s a benefit to us and a win-win for everyone.”

12-hour day

Wiles said the county’s jail costs should come down sharply now that he has implemented the 12-hour day for detention officers. That means they’re working three 12-hour days and one four-hour day a week.

Wiles made the change six weeks ago after weathering a lawsuit and temporary injunction by the union. Since then, overtime costs have plummeted.

“At the jail annex, our overtime costs normally run between $40,000 and $60,000 every two weeks,” Wiles said. “We’re now down to $6,700 for the last two weeks.”

Last year, the county spent $3.4 million in overtime at the detention centers.

“I think we’re going to be able to bring that down to $1 million,” Wiles said. “Initially people were resistant to the change, but it seems now that they like it.”

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Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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